ithell colquhoun magician born of nature
All texts copyright Richard Shillitoe

tree anatomy


Oil on panel. 22¼x 11¼in. (56.9 x 29cm.) Signed, titled and dated verso. Provenance Sotheby’s, studio sale, 24 April 1985, lot 521. Pruskin Gallery, London. Private collection, Leeds. Exhibited London, The Leicester Galleries, 1942, no. 42. Penzance, Newlyn Gallery, 1961, no. 29. Exeter, City Art Gallery, 1972, no. 4. Penzance, Newlyn Gallery, 1976, no. 10. London, Parkin Gallery, 1977, no. 23. London, Blond Fine Art, 1985, no. 40. Canterbury, The Herbert Read Gallery, 1986, no. 79, ill. col. (photo inverted). Finland, Retretti Art Centre, 1987. Wolfsburg, Kunstmuseum, 2002-03. Middlesbrough, Institute of Modern Art, 2008, ill. col. p. 50. Leeds, City Art Gallery, 2009, ill. col. p. 139. Manchester, City Art Gallery, 2009, no. 34, ill. col. p. 119. Damage to a tree trunk has left a canker; an area of decay that forms a gaping oval cavity. In a classic double image, knot hole becomes vagina. Although, physically, the painting is quite small, the image dominates the picture space. Gazing at that part of a woman’s body of which men are most afraid, the viewer is jolted by this subversion of scale and is transformed into a tiny creature experiencing the over life-size image as cavernous and engulfing. Tree Anatomy can be related to myths concerning vegetation deities, dealt with in The Golden Bough, the classic work of anthropology by James Frazer. Colquhoun’s own copy (sadly, un-annotated) is in the Tate Archive. We are reminded of the accounts in the book of men who attempted to fertilize trees in the way that came naturally to them, using an appropriate cavity in the bark. This image would certainly provide guidance for any inex-perienced rustic. We are also reminded of the myth of Daphne, who was metamorphosed into a laurel bush by her father, a river god, in order to preserve her from the sexual predations of Apollo. What a bitter irony if the only part of her to remain accessible was that which he most desired to protect! And, what a dereliction of paternal duty to leave his daughter so exposed and defence-less at her time of greatest need! When Colquhoun was asked to remove The Pine Family from the Leicester Galleries exhibition in 1942 because of its pornographic content, this was the work that she hung in its stead. A drawing by Edith Rimmington, used as the cover of the single-issue Surrealist publication Fulcrum in 1944, shows a tree trunk with bark and knot holes that take the forms of breasts and gaping vagina (not to mention the presence of a pair of scaly bird’s legs and talons that reach menacingly towards the vagina). Colquhoun experimented in automatic writing and drawing with Edith Rimmington and Emmy Bridgewater. Some of the latter pair’s joint texts were published in Fulcrum. Was Rimmington familiar with Tree Anatomy? The panel is from an old piece of furniture. The cartoon and a colour note are both known.